Forgotten/Ignored Gem: The Good Thief

I’m a sucker for heist films. Why? Could be my anal-retentive nature responds to their inherently complicated, yet perfectly designed and executed, machinations. Of course, they’re fun, too, which never hurts. Frankly, I’d struggle to name another cinematic genre quite as satisfying or addicting — who among us hasn’t stumbled across one of the recent Ocean’s trilogy (2001, 2004, 2007) and not settled in for the duration despite needing to hit the sack?

While Steven Soderbergh’s aforementioned trilogy enjoyed great success, there are many heist films (some much better) that have flown under the average movie-going Joe’s radar, films like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1956) , John Frankenheimer’s Ronin (1998), Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006), to name but a few.

 

 

And then there’s the film I’d like to focus on with this post, 2002’s The Good Thief, written and directed by Neil Jordan, he of The Crying Game fame, and starring Nick Nolte in one of his finest screen performances. It is a remake of Bob le flambeur, a 1956 French film starring Roger Duchesne and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.

Synopsis

Filmed in the beautiful French Riviera (primarily Nice and Monte Carlo), the movie opens in seedy club where Bob Montagnet (Nolte) is playing (and losing at) cards. A young North African drug dealer named Saïd stops by the table and Bob hits him up for a fix. As Bob shoots the heroin in the back of the bar, he meets a young woman, a Russian named Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze), who’s recently been hired as a “waitress.” Bob’s no fool; he understand immediately what she doesn’t — she’s being groomed to be a hooker. When he tells her she’s too young to work at a bar (she says she’s 17), she counters that he’s too old to shoot heroin. He agrees, saying,  “You’re right, we’re both lost souls,” in that uniquely gruff Nolte-ian voice. The drug kicks in, putting an abrupt stop to their conversation.

Meanwhile, in the bar proper, a cop, Roger (Tchéky Karyo), enters to bust Saïd for possession and dealing. However, Saïd, who until this time seems rather docile, grabs Roger’s gun, gets him in a headlock and starts screaming threats. Roger asks for someone to translate and it’s Bob, emerging from the back and high as a kite, who does the honors, explaining to Roger that Saïd is terrified of being deported because of what will happen to him back home. Bob then takes the three syringes he’s just used and stabs Saïd in the arm, freeing Roger and ending the crisis. A shaken Roger thanks him and the two have a conversation in which it becomes apparent they have a history (Bob’s a well-known thief, Roger’s booked him on many occasions) and a grudging admiration for each other (Roger’s a fair guy, Bob is Bob and everyone likes him). As such, Roger warns him he better be clean on the thievery front. To which Bob says, “I’ve retired. I’m a junkie gambler now. A big loser. That’s all.”

Now don’t go letting the above description convince you this is a dark, disturbing film about scumbags, all drugs, hookers and violence. Nothing could be further from the truth. In both his writing and direction, Jordan employs a light touch — there’s plenty of witty repartee involved in the opening scene despite the characters questionable actions. (In recounting his stabbing of Saïd, Bob laments that he promised himself never to share needles.)

I’ve highlight the opening scene because it’s a masterclass in effective and economical character introductions. Through simple dialogue and actions, we see that Bob is down-on-his-luck and abusing drugs, but at the same time empathetic, chivalrous and self-aware enough to see he’s approaching rock bottom. Anne, we learn, can hold her own against Bob’s wit and the two have a certain chemistry right off the bat. Lastly, we understand that Roger admires Bob and is concerned enough to push Bob to walk the straight and narrow.

The next day, Bob, concerned about Anne’s well-being, finds a way to steal back her passport from her prospective pimp (taking the passport of a young woman right off the boat is how a pimp immediately gets them under his thumb) and invites her to stay at his apartment. This will be a platonic arrangement, he makes clear, much to her chagrin. With Anne settled, Bob decides to take one last crack at changing his run of bad luck, betting every last penny (70,000 FF) on a horserace. At the track, he asks his good buddy, Raoul (Gérard Darmon), to make the bet for him. Raoul does as he’s told but is rightfully concerned. (Raoul: “Bob, you’re crazy, what if you lose?” Bob: “I will have hit rock bottom. I’ll have to change my ways.”)

Bob, of course, loses. On the drive home from the track, Raoul takes a detour to Monte Carlo. And it’s in this scene that two things are revealed:

  1. Raoul, as played by M. Darmon, is one of the greatest cigarette smokers this writer has ever seen (the ease and grace with which he lights, inhales, exhales, holds, extinguishes, etc., makes one seriously consider chancing lung cancer to appear as half as elegant) and…
  2. the crux of the film, the heist itself, to take place at the Casino Riviera. (“You see, Bob, I figured you needed a reason for living. Now that your luck’s bottomed out.”)

The weekend of the upcoming Grand Prix de Monaco, the casino with have about 80,000,000 FF in its safe. Bob reminds him that every thief in history has studied that score and determined it’s impossible (Bob: “Besides, I’m just a gambler now.” Raoul: “Since when?” Bob: “Since my last six convictions.”) Raoul tells him that’s not the job he had in mind. Instead, he wants to go after paintings. It seems that the new owners of the casino are Japanese. And back in the 1980s (Raoul: “Remember the 80s, Bob?” Bob: “No.”), the Japanese, flush with money, bought up tons of famous artworks. Which now reside on the walls of the casino to attract new customers, priceless works from the likes of Cezanne, Picasso, Modigliani. Except the paintings on the walls aren’t real; they’re fakes. The real pictures sit in a high-tech vault in an outbuilding. And it just so happens that Raoul knows the guy who designed the security system, a Russian tech genius with an electric guitar passion named Vladimir. 

Bob agrees to take the job. But first he needs to get clean, handcuffing himself to his bed for three days with a bucket at his side to go through withdrawal. Soon after, the plan begins to take shape: the night before the grand prix, Bob, Raoul and their other partner in crime, Paulo (Saïd Taghmaouiwill be gambling in the casino to throw off the police (Roger, knowing Bob is on a downward spiral and worried he’s up to something, is tailing him everywhere). Meanwhile, the team they’ve assembled will enter the vault from underneath. Thus a rock-solid alibi.

And that’s about as far as I can go without ruining the rest of the film. Suffice to say that, like all good heist films, nothing works out as planned, the complicated works mucked up by an eclectic mix of wrenches, including a pair of identical twins, a snitch, a murder, Anne (unknowingly), Roger, a muscle-bound trans named Phillipe (now Phillippa) who’s afraid of spiders, Anne’s would-be pimp and the shady art dealer Tony Angel (Ralph Fiennes).

Not all is lost, though; in the film’s sublime last 15 minutes, Bob, with Anne at his side, sees his streak of bad luck finally change in a way no one, Bob especially, saw coming. A thoroughly satisfying end.

Final Thoughts

I first ran across The Good Thief on cable and was instantly hooked — it’s one of those films you could watch over and over. Low on violence yet firmly adult in tone, it’s full of eccentric characters, snappy dialogue and picturesque French Riviera locales rendered even more beautiful by great cinematographer Chris Menges. The performance are uniformly wonderful, especially Nolte, who, as noted by Roger Ebert in his 2002 review “was born to play Bob. It is one of those performances that flows unhindered from an actor’s deepest instincts.” Nolte certainly digs deep, especially in the scenes before Bob gets clean. It’s a great performance by a generally underrated actor. Throughout the proceedings, writer-director Jordan cleverly sprinkles in allusions to both the 12-step addiction recovery program and the Good Thief of the title, a bible story involving a “lost soul” (as Bob references in his first meeting with Anne) who, like certain characters in the film, finds an unlikely way to redemption. It’s a job well done on all fronts and well worth your time.

Here’s the (admittedly terrible) trailer:

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